Blood service is pounds 3m in debt

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The blood service in England is millions of pounds in debt, despite a big shake-up designed to improve efficiency and cut costs. The debts are understood to exceed pounds 3m and could be higher, a source said.

The National Blood Authority (NBA), which runs the service, may have to ask Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, for extra cash. Despite alarm among staff, an authority spokesman denied it was in financial difficulty.

A business plan seen by the Independent shows the northern zone, one of three covering the country, expects to have a deficit of pounds 1m this year.The zone has already used pounds 1.1m of "transitional funding" from the Health Department to carry out reforms and will have to ask for more, the plan says.

Sources say the western and south Midlands zone is pounds 1.5m overspent and the figure is expected to be higher in the London and South-east region, which has traditionally had to "import" stocks from other parts of the country because of a shortage of donors.

A Manufacturing Science and Finance union spokeswoman said members were going home each day with work unfinished. "They are very concerned. It indicates there is a financial squeeze."

The figures have emerged as the service is undergoing upheaval, with the work of the regional transfusion centres streamlined following management consultant recommendations which identified potential savings of pounds 10m.

Scientists fear the deficit could further delay introduction of more reliable testing for hepatitis B and HTLV-1, a virus type which can cause cancer and neurological illnesses.

A number of problems have contributed to the budgetary shortfall, including the Tuta bag scandal last summer, when new, cheaper blood bags were withdrawn because of contamination. The move was supposed to save the service pounds 700,000 a year, but this was forfeited when managers had to return to previous suppliers.